Vietnam has long laid claim to some of Southeast Asia’s most complex cuisines. In Ho Chi Minh City, a walk through any neighborhood will fill you with intoxicating aromas of countless dishes spilling from street carts or open homes. In the city’s center, as District 1 has blossomed into the core of a globalized Vietnam, another layer has been added to the already rich food culture. Restaurants with far-reaching influences have opened and transformed Ho Chi Minh into a mecca of international tastes just waiting to be explored.
Hoa Tuc Saigon offers a contemporary spin on traditional Vietnamese cuisine. Hidden down an alley in a pretty colonial-era building, it can be difficult to decide what’s better here, the ambiance or the food. The Parisian front garden offers one of Saigon’s finest alfresco dining experiences. The cuisine is splendid—classic Vietnamese ingredients transformed into something modern and exciting. Hoa Tuc also hosts some of the most interesting cooking classes in Saigon.
It’s said that sight is our most powerful sense. Remove that and everything else improves. That’s the belief at Noir. Dining in the Dark anyway. Perhaps Saigon’s most unique restaurant, Noir offers something most people have never experienced before—a meal with absolutely no light. You’ll be in good hands; the waiters here are blind and a bit more accustomed to the surroundings. The experience is as interesting as the food is tasty—an exquisite blend mix of Eastern and Western. In fact, it’s so good that the owners have opened a second restaurant named Blanc right next door. Just don’t try to say anything once inside; Blanc is sign language only.
The best steak in Saigon. El Gaucho is a mouth-watering good time, serving up large portions of succulent beef. With four floors and an extensive menu, this steakhouse can be a bit overwhelming at first, yet the aromas alone will quickly put you at ease. Pepper, chimichurri, or blue cheese sauces are delightful additions to an expertly grilled 300-gram steak. While the price tag at the end of the night may shock you, that tender, marbled ribeye settling in your belly will remind you that it’s OK to splurge every once in a while. Located along Hai Ba Trung, El Goucho is consistently packed, so make sure to call ahead.
Just a block from Notre Dame Cathedral, Propaganda serves fabulous traditional Vietnamese cuisine. Any meal here starts best with one of the many spring roll options—the duck and spicy ginger fish sauce is a favorite. For a main, try the juicy BBQ pork and a glass of red wine from the very food-friendly list. The walls of Propaganda are lined with colorful murals depicting traditional Vietnamese life and bring a certain level of liveliness and excitement to the establishment. Frequented mainly by tourists, the prices are a bit above average.
Brand new and very modest, this hole in the wall on Vo Van Viet has already developed quite a following in Saigon. El Sham serves traditional Syrian cuisine from meat shawarma, to falafel or tabbouleh—all attractively prepared. The ingredients are either locally sourced or actually flown in from Syria. The fresh veggies are a welcome sight for vegetarians in a city where eating out can be notoriously difficult. Meats are prepared over a large grill just outside the restaurant’s front door. The decor is simple and a bit bland, yet the abundance of heart-healthy delicious options will keep you coming back for more.
Secret Garden feels more like a home cooked meal than eating out. After you make the five-floor trek up, this romantic rooftop experience will indulge your taste buds in traditional Vietnamese fare. Dishes are served in tasteful pottery. A pleasant atmospheric environment creates a laid-back vibe in this outdoor space. Secret Garden is a mix of locals and tourists, and the prices are very reasonable.
Looming over the canal, Xien Khe is a terrific place to start or finish a night. Wind your way up the narrow back staircase, and find a table on the open-air third floor. As the sun sets and the temperature drops, Saigon’s weather becomes shockingly pleasant. The refreshing breeze makes this an incredibly enjoyable place to grab a dollar beer, some quick traditional Vietnamese food, and to watch the city go by. With an abundance of dives, this stretch of Hoang Sa is a great area to bar hop well off the beaten path.
Hands down, the best burger in Saigon. Soul Burger can be a bit tough to find, but if you put in the effort, you won’t be disappointed. This narrow burger joint occupies the second floor of an unremarkable building, directly opposite of Ben Thanh Market. Only accessible through a narrow, dimly lit hallway that runs alongside a Vietnamese noodle restaurant, Soul Burger brings a char broiled Kansas City flavor to Ho Chi Minh. Take a seat at the balcony overlooking the market and stuff your face with artery-clogging goodness.
Just off Nguyen Hue, Tandoor has been serving up the best Indian food in Saigon for nearly 20 years. Each dish is an expertly crafted medley of flavor and spice—a modern spin on authentic Indian. The chicken vindaloo is a fan favorite, sure to make you leave happy. Reasonably priced for such quality grub, Tandoor is a nice place to stop by while exploring Saigon.
No list would be complete without the obligatory pho joint. Synonymous with Vietnam, this piping hot bowl of rich broth, oxtail, diced scallions, rice noodles, herbs, and spices is consumed for breakfast, lunch, and dinner by the rich and poor alike, and Pho Bo Vien Thap Cam serves up an immaculate bowl. This may be the best bowl of pho in town.